Exploring the city from A to Z

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Bowery

According to Wikipedia, The Bowery area of New York is bordered by East 4th Street and the East Village to the north, Canal Street and Chinatown to the South, Allen Street and the Lower East Side to the east and Bowery (the street) and Little Italy to the west. The area gets its name from the street, the Bowery. In the 1600's, when New York was New Amsterdam, the Bowery was the lane that ran to the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of the colony. In fact, the word, "bowery" comes from the Dutch word, "bouwerij," which means farm.

The Bowery has gone through many changes over the years. After its beginnings as a farm lane, it transformed into a fashionable and elegant thoroughfare in the 1700's, to a red light district in the 1800's, to NYC's "skid row" in the 1900's. The neighborhood's latter incarnations are the ones that gave it its reputation. As author Luc Sante wrote,"..until fairly recently the Bowery always possessed the greatest number of groggeries, flophouses, clip joints, brothels, fire sales, rigged auctions, pawnbrokers, dime museums, shooting galleries, dime-a-dance establishments, fortune-telling agencies, lottery agencies, thieves' markets, and tattoo parlors, as well as theaters of the second, third, fifth and tenth rank. It is also a fact that the Bowery is the only major thoroughfare in New York never to have had a single church built upon it."

Another interesting fact for you: according to Forgotten NY, "The expressions 'on the wagon' and 'off the wagon' had their origins on the Bowery where Evangeline Booth (whose father founded the Salvation Army), used to send a horse-drawn wagon onto the thoroughfare to pick up drunks and bring them to an Army facility where they could dry out and hopefully put their lives together."

Nowadays the neighborhood is much less sketchy. Luxury apartments, upscale restaurants and bars, and even a Whole Foods supermarket have replaced the flophouses (although a few do remain), the saloons, the brothels, and the fighting rings. However, the neighborhood does retain some of its past flavor as I would find out.

My first stop of the evening was the Lobby Bar in The Bowery Hotel. I was quite impressed with the place. The doormen were dressed in white pants, red coats and vests, and black bowler hats. The clientele were very well to do business people. (I had to wonder, if you were a millionaire, why would you stay at a hotel on the Bowery?) The lobby itself was all dark wood, Persian rugs, old paintings, old books, and old (looking) furniture. This was certainly the kind of ambiance I wanted for a trip to the Bowery.

After a few minutes, my fellow NYC adventurers, and guest stars for the evening, The Bowery Boys arrived together.

Hey, it's the Bowery Boys!

If you're not familiar with the boys, they are Tom Meyers and Greg Young and they do a fantastic weekly podcast about NYC history. I really recommend you check it out. I'm a subscriber and a big fan. I thought it would be fun to meet up with them while I was in their 'hood. Luckily for me, they agreed.

We took a seat at the bar and ordered a round. Tom and I asked the bartender if they had any special cocktails. The bartender told us they had a Bowery Hotel cocktail that was made of (I'm working from memory here) vermouth, brown sugar, bitters, and champagne. "That is special!" I said, and ordered a glass of wine. We weren't allowed to take our drinks to the lobby as it was reserved for hotel guests only, so we stayed in the antler-decorated bar area.

I had a great time talking to the boys. Both of them are walking encyclopedias of New York City history and they had some fascinating stories to tell. Greg had even brought along some print outs of Bowery stories from their site to give to me! I was quite impressed. We also chatted about Broadway (Greg used to be a theater critic), traveling (Tom runs a travel website, EuroCheapo.com), and the work it takes them to put together a weekly podcast. Truly they are better men than I.

After we finished our drinks, we left the ornate hotel and the boys walked me down the Bowery, pointing out sites of interest. We passed the former location of CBGB's. Now part of the building that was the old punk rock club is an art gallery. As if to remind everyone of the place's past glory, the old CBGB logo had been painted on a wall inside.

Country, Blue Grass and Basquiat?

Another interesting historic site that Greg pointed out was the building where McGurk's Suicide Hall once stood. McGurk's was a dive bar where prostitutes would try to meet Johns. It was apparently the lowest dive of the dives and in the year 1899, six prostitutes commited suicide there by either using carbolic acid or a jumping from the 5th story. In a rather morbid PR attempt, McGurk renamed his bar, "Suicide Hall," to capitalize on the attention the deaths had caused. In 2005, the building was torn down and in its place a very modern condominium complex was built. If that doesn't have "haunted house" written all over it, I don't know what does.

As we walked further down the road, we came upon The New Museum. (That's an oxymoron, isn't it?) Actually, we were at the new location of the New Museum, so, in fact, we were at the New New Museum. The New Museum is dedicated to contemporary art and according to their website is the, "first art museum ever constructed from the ground up in downtown Manhattan." They were allowing people in for free and it seemed like a great opportunity to get some culture in, so I decided to check it out.

It was here that I parted ways with the boys. I said a sad goodbye and took the elevator up to the fifth floor and made my way down the museum. I wish I could say that I liked or even understood the works the museum had on exhibit. The first floor I entered had balls of clothing lying about that had been tied up with bungee cords, key rings hooked on the walls, and other odd assortments. It was then that I remembered Tom's last words to me, "Try not to laugh too much."

One of the art installations was, I swear to God, a large cardboard box and some plastic sheeting. I wanted to ask the security guards how they felt watching over something that you would pass by on the street. It was like an "art exhibit" that you would see in a bad sitcom where the dad has been dragged away from the game by his shrewish and far too attractive wife. I could almost hear Tim Allen crying, "You call this ART?"

As I left one of the floors, I accidentally used the emergency exit instead of the real one. (I was a bit tipsy from my drinks at the Lobby Bar.) A loud alarm sounded and I pulled the door closed, smiling apologetically. A man to my right turned to his date and said to her, "Did you do that?" Then he saw me and said, "Oh. I thought that was part of the exhibit." And there was my cue to leave.

As I exited the museum, I noticed that right next to it was The Sunshine Hotel, one of the few remaining flophouses left on the Bowery. It seemed weird that a place where you could get a room for $4.50 a night with a bed, locker, bare bulb, and chicken wire ceiling would be right next door to a place where a similar set up could be considered an installation.

My next stop of the night was Freeman's, a restaurant I had heard good things about. Well, I'd heard good things about their mac & cheese. Freeman's is located off Rivington at the end of an alley. In other words, it literally had the back alley, Boweryesque vibe I was looking for. To say that it was packed would be a huge understatement. Every hipster in a mile radius was there trying to get a table. I just wanted to make my way to the bar, but after 15 minutes of trying I gave up. As awesome as the place (and its mac & cheese) may have been, I wasn't going to fight someone for a drink. I will have to come back some day, when the horde isn't quite so large.

After I left Freeman's I wandered the neighborhood a bit. There were lots of interesting examples of street art to see. Like this...

And this...

A little less conversation, a little more action, please.

After a little while, I walked back up the Bowery, grabbed a slice of pizza, and headed home. Maybe it was because I had spent a good part of the evening with The Bowery Boys learning about the area's history, but more than any other neighborhood I'd been to, I could feel the ghosts of its past. It reminded me of something Neil Gaiman once wrote, "If a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams." Maybe that night the Bowery was dreaming of its once dark and violent glory. Then again, maybe I should stop after one glass of wine.

1 comment:

melissa said...

i am a hooker, so this one particularly interested me.